Empty Mansions: Don’t be old and rich in New York City

I just finished Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, the New York Times bestseller by investigative reporter Bill Dedman and a relative of the rich old lady who died and left a legal mess.

Huguette Clark was the youngest daughter of a 19th century western mining and banking magnate. She died in 2011 at the age of 104 with a fortune worth more than $310 million.

If you were considering becoming old and rich in New York City, this book will serve as a cautionary tale. Clark was reclusive and spent the last two decades of her life in Beth Israel Hospital, which extracted about $400,000 per year from her but did not put her in one of their VIP rooms. As Clark was in pretty good health and should not have been there, the hospital hid her from inspectors while simultaneously trying to extract a massive donation from her (over $100 million was the goal).

One of her doctors tapped her for more than $1 million in loans that he would never repay. Her longtime nurse managed to collect $31 million in gifts during Clark’s lifetime and was on track to collect an additional $15 million in her Will.

Clark had jewelry in safe deposit boxes at Citibank. The bank lost some of it in the 1980s and took advantage of Clark’s fear of publicity by saying that they couldn’t pay her the fair value discreetly. Then due to incompetence and miscommunication between two departments within Citibank, in the 1990s the bank decided that the rest of her jewelry was abandoned and they sold it “to a liquidator at rock-bottom prices.”

Her accountant had a felony conviction for trying to meet up with 13-year-old and 15-year-old girls in AOL chatrooms (apparently the only people in AOL chatrooms these days are affiliated with the police). The account and lawyer had previously collected for themselves nearly the entire estate (about $2 million) of the lawyer’s former partner. Perhaps because it was so easy to get money from estates, these guys barely did their jobs while Clark was alive. Because they didn’t file gift tax returns (despite being paid over $200,000 per year in fees), the estate owed the IRS $82 million in gift taxes, penalties, and interest.

Apparently in the world of New York State estate law, even the judges need not be above suspicion: “The [dispute over Clark’s will] was assigned in 2013 to a judge, Surrogate Nora S. Anderson, who the previous year had been censured for failing to report $250,000 in campaign contributions. She was acquitted by a criminal jury of two felony charges of filing false campaign reports, then was censured by the state judicial conduct commission.”

New York apparently allows a pretty fair amount of stealing from rich dead people without anyone having to break the law. The accountant and lawyer were set up to be executors of Clark’s estate as well as trustees of a foundation to handle some of the charitable bequest. It seems that New York has a standard “executor commission” of about 2 percent on large estates. So even if the bequest had been as simple as “give everything to Princeton” and the work required be nothing more than writing one check, the accountant and lawyer would have paid themselves over $6 million. As foundation trustees they then would have been able to pay themselves additional fees for many years to come.

The book is a little sad because Dedman was able to dig up so few honest or selfless New Yorkers. It seems that virtually anyone who got near this woman or earned her trust could not resist the temptation to take advantage of her generosity.

There are some happy parts of the book. Clark uses her fabulous wealth to indulge a taste for the world’s best dollhouses and model Japanese castles, built by craftsmen in Germany and Japan. She pays an assistant to write down transcripts of Flintstone episodes. When she wants to make a little music, she takes a Stradivarius violin out of the closet (first she needs to choose which of her Stradivariuses to play). Back in the middle of the 20th century, Clark bought all of the stuff that rich New Yorkers like and consequently seemingly everything that she bought appreciated beautifully, ranging from her Impressionist paintings to the violins to the big apartment (47X increase in value, adjusted for inflation, from 1955 to 2012).

The book reminds us that even if we aren’t rich enough to own a Renoir or play a Stradivarius, there are some advantages to living in the modern age. Ultimately the saddest part of the book concerns the death of Clark’s beloved older sister at age 17, from an infection that would easily be cured today with antibiotics. Clark’s life might have been very different if her only sibling had survived.

More: buy the book.

6 thoughts on “Empty Mansions: Don’t be old and rich in New York City

  1. *some advantages to living in the modern age. Ultimately the saddest part of the book concerns the death of Clark’s beloved older sister at age 17, from an infection that would easily be cured today with antibiotics. *

    An advantage soon to expire.

    Too bad the obvious measures are politically impossible because of insider greed and the populace is too lazy to demand action until it’s too late. But that applies to more than antibiotic resistance, of course.

  2. If you’re not so insanely rich as to be susceptible to schemes like this, New York City is a great place to be old and rich. The density is convenient for an old person. Property taxes for owner occupied housing are extremely low. Income taxes are high, but you are old and have already made your money, so that doesn’t affect you as much.

  3. $400,000 per year per separate room + special care in Manhattan hospital (~$1,000/day!!!) is an unbelievable deal. Wish I could get it nearly two decades ago at a hospital in less glamorous location for a shared room when I needed it.

  4. Given your summary, the take home message seems to be ‘make sure you have strong bonds with people for reasons other than money’. I doubt the departed would have been in the same situation had some people been interested in her welfare, no strings attached.

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